My name is Maxie.
There isn’t a photograph of me but I am a WaTaveta who lives in Taita-Tsavo in what is today’s Kenya. One hundred years ago it was British East Africa and there had been some big fights between the white and Indian soldiers of the British king and the white and black soldiers of the German king.
We were told not to get involved as it was not our war, but some of us were paid to help with building the railway line, accommodation and other things that needed doing. Later on, when the fighting moved south and more labour was needed, men were sometimes forced or work for little pay. My work kept me near home.
A few months after the big fight at the dusty hill we call Salaita, a man came looking for some bodies of men who had died in the battle. I was able to tell him about 21 graves I knew at Taveta, the local market town.
I told the man, an English soldier that “When the Germans were fighting in the direction of Mbuyuni they used to bring the wounded Englishmen into the District Officer’s house here, (which, at the time was used as a Hospital,) when these Englishmen died the Germans buried them in this place and fired guns over the graves.”
I then took him about 25 paces (20 yards) to the north of the 14 graves I had shown him to show him another 7 which the Germans carried from Mbuyuni. The man said they are going to dig up the graves and move the bodies. I don’t understand why but it seems important to them. He was also trying to find out which were the English or white man’s graves.
The burial practices I saw are strange. The wafu (dead) have a special power and we believe in the existence of Mlungu (High God). Here, the white men laid the bodies down flat. In our tradition, we stand them up in the ground and build a hut over the space. When our people die, we close their eyes so that the evil spirits cannot enter the body. I don’t know who did that for these poor soldiers. Many were lying on the ground for hours before someone found them. We then lie them on a bed. The body is washed and shaved by women past the child bearing age. The head was covered by a foot of soil. One year later we take the skull to the shrine.
At kuchumbua maridia (the end of mourning a year after the burial) we have an event where a goat is sacrificed and the remains scattered over the crops. There is a final day of wailing and shaving. A cow is slaughtered for those who dug the hole and the hut is either sold and dismantled for someone else to use, or if the surviving spouse is a woman, she lives in the hut until she dies.
The man wrote some things down and went away but I was still confused.
A few years later, another white man came along. I took him to a spot about 2000 steps (½ mile) in the direction the sun rises and 125 steps from the railway track near where they used to burn the Hindus who died. The grass was burnt a few times and the ground is swampy, but you can still see where 11 men were buried, about 18 moons ago, by the wire fence and the outlines of holes which were filled in. The fires had destroyed the fence posts and wooden markers saying who was in the ground.
Later in Voi, at the end of the railway line, I heard the man, Milner he said his name was, tell the church man Verbi and Major Layzell about what I had told him. He said that about 1 February 1916, 21 men were brought into the hospital by the Germans near Salaita Hill. They were badly wounded and died soon after. These were the graves I showed him. When other men died, they were buried next to first. There was a strange ceremony which accompanied the placing of the men in the grave. The Askari (black soldiers) fired their guns into the sky. This was strange as they usually only pointed them at people to shoot.
On 4 April 1923, this is what the man said the date was, this man asked me confusing questions which I didn’t understand, something about a Native Christian Cemetery. He then asked me where the camp was of the men who were working on the construction of the railway. He said something about a loose-leaf register, South African natives, South African Railway and Cape Corps being buried.
Oh, I knew where the graves of the railway workers were and also the South African natives. This was 2000 steps from the Taveta Station and 125 steps from the railway track. This was where the cemetery was made and was marked by barbed wire. There were 11 graves.
I also took Milner to the foot of the hills on which the Old Fort stands at Taveta, and showed him a place where I had dug a grave for the Germans to bury an Englishman in. The Englishman had been shot by the Germans for spying and brought into the building on the hill during the latter part of the day. The German Askaris carried him on a rough stretcher and the following morning my friends and I were told to dig this grave. The Germans brought a box which they placed in the grave and fired shots over.
Nineteen nights later (23 April) native minister of the Taveta CMS Mission named Johana Mbela who could talk English told the Englishman that he, Johana, was taken prisoner by the Germans and placed in the building on the hill close to where we were standing. This happened in August 1914. In early September 1914, he said the Germans brought in the man who had been caught spying with a Captain on a small hill towards Serengetti. The Captain was shot dead and the man the Germans brought in ran away to get his motor cycle and was shot in the leg. After the Germans had put this man in the next room to Johana, the Germans brought the man’s clothes and some papers into his room and asked him what was written on them, but he did not tell them. He tried to pronounce a name which sounded like Groarty. He remembered the man calling for water all night until early morning, and seemed to be in very great pain, then all was quiet.
I couldn’t believe it. Minister Johana Mbela had seen the man I had to dig a grave for. These Englishman kept saying ‘what a small world.’
Commonwealth War Grave archive, Maidenhead: CWGC 1/1/7/E/57 WG 122/8 pt 2; Verbi and Layzell who reside in the Voi District had both been Intelligence Officers during the campaign in the Taveta District.
This account was written for Diversity House Micro-nations event on 27 October 2017.